Adam & Eve – Karl Shapiro

Finding this poem was more difficult than I had expected. The examples of “things I couldn’t” find online are few and far between. Further, I couldn’t find it in any local bookstore. Austin has a lot of bookstores. The public library was my last hope, and the main branch had one version of “Love & War, Art & God.”

New pages in my life reveal new meanings within this work. As I move forward in life, Shapiro’s words seem different, improved, more precise. I memorized this when I was 16 for a high school project in Detroit.

I read this poem when I was discovering new things.

“Adam & Eve” by Karl Shapiro

I. The Sickness of Adam

In the beginning, at every step, he turned
As if by instinct to the East to praise
The nature of things. Now every path was learned
He lost the lifted, almost flower-like gaze.

Of a temple dancer. He began to walk
Slowly, like one accustomed to be alone.
He found himself lost in the field of talk;
Thinking became a garden of its own.

In it were new things: words he had never said,
Beasts he had never seen and knew were not
In the true garden, terrors, and tears shed
Under a tree by him, for some new thought.

And the first anger. Once he flung a staff
At softly coupling sheep and struck the ram.
It broke away. And God heard Adam laugh
And for his laughter made the creature lame.

And wanderlust. He stood upon the Wall
To search the unfinished countries lying wide
And waste, where not a living thing could crawl,
And yet he would descend, as if to hide.

His thought drew down the guardian at the gate,
To whom man said, “What danger am I in?”
And the angel, hurt in spirit, seemed to hate
The wingless thing that worried after sin,

For it said nothing but marvelously unfurled
Its wings and arched them shimmering overhead,
Which must have been the signal from the world
That the first season of our life was dead.

Adam fell down with labor in his bones,
And God approached him in the cool of day
And said, “This sickness in your skeleton
Is longing. I will remove it from your clay.”

He said also, “I made you strike the sheep.”
It began to rain and God sat down beside
The sinking man. When he was fast asleep
He wet his right hand deep in Adam’s side

And drew the graceful rib out of his breast.
Far off, the latent streams began to flow
And birds flew out of Paradise to nest
On earth. Sadly the angel watched them go.

II. The Recognition of Eve

Whatever it was she had so fiercely fought
Had fled back to the sky, but still she lay
With arms outspread, awaiting its assault,
Staring up through the branches of the tree,
The fig tree. Then she drew a shuddering breath
And turned her head instinctively his way,
She had fought birth as dying men fight death.

Her sign awakened him.   He turned and saw
A body swollen, as though formed of fruits,
White as the flesh of fishes, soft and raw.
He hoped she was another of the brutes
So he crawled over and looked into her eyes,
The human wells that pool all absolutes,
It was like looking into double skies.

And when she spoke the first word (it was thou)
He was terror-stricken, but she raised her hand
And touched his wound where it was fading now,
For he must feel the place to understand.
Then he recalled the longing that had torn
His side, and while he watched it whitely mend,
He felt it stab him suddenly like a thorn.

He thought the woman had hurt him. Was it she
Or the same sickness seeking to return;
Or was there any difference, the pain set free
And she who seized him now as hard as iron?
Her fingers bit his body. She looked old
And involuted, like the newly born.
He let her hurt him till she loosed her hold.

Then she forgot him and she wearily stood
And went in search of water through the grove.
Adam could see her wandering through the wood,
Studying her footsteps as her body wove
In light and out of light. She found a pool
And there he followed shyly to observe.
She was already turning beautiful

III. The Kiss

The first kiss was with stumbling fingertips.
Their bodies grazed each other as if by chance
And touched and untouched in a kind of dance.
Second, they found out touching with their lips.

Some obscure angel, passing on his course,
Shed such a brightness on the face of Eve
That Adam in grief was ready to believe
He had lost her love.  The third kiss was by force.

Their lips formed foreign, unimagined oaths
When speaking of the Tree of Guilt. So wide
Their mouths, they drank each other from inside.
A gland of honey burst within their throats.

But something rustling hideously overhead,
They jumped up from the forth caress and hid.

IV. The Tree of Guilt

Why on her way to the oracle of Love,
Did she not even glance up at the Tree
Of Life, that giant with whitish cast
And glinting leaves and berries of dull gray,
As though covered with mold? But who would taste
The medicine of immortality,
And who would “be as God?” And in what way?

So she came breathless to the lowlier one
And like a priestess of the cult she knelt,
Holding her breasts in a token for a sign,
And prayed the spirit of the burdened bough
That the great power of the tree be seen
And lift itself out of the Tree of Guilt
Where it had hidden in the leaves till now.

Or did she know already? Had the peacock
Rattling its quills, glancing its thousand eyes
At her, the iridescence of the dove,
Stench of the he-goat, everything that joins
Told her the mystery?  It was not enough,
So from the tree the snake began to rise
And dropt its head and pointed at her loins.

She fell and hid her face and still she saw
The spirit of the tree emerge and slip
Into the open sky until it stood
Straight as a standing stone, and spilled its seed.
And all the seeds were serpents of the good.
Again the snake was seized and from its lip
It spat the venomous evil of the deed.

And it was over.  But the woman lay
Stricken with what she knew, ripe in her thought
Like a fresh apple fallen from the limb
And rotten, like a fruit that lies too long.
This way she rose, ripe-rotten in her prime
And spurned the cold thing coiled against her foot
And called her husband, in a kind of song.

V. The Confession

As on the first day her first word was thou.
He waited while she said, “Thou art the tree.”
And while she said, almost accusingly,
Looking at nothing, “Thou are the fruit I took.”
She seemed smaller by inches as she spoke,
And Adam wondering touched her hair and shook,
Half understanding.  He answered softly, “How?”

And for the third time, in the third way, Eve:
“The tree rises from the middle part
Of the garden.” And almost tenderly, “Thou art
The garden. We.” The she was overcome,
And Adam coldly, lest he should succumb
To pity, standing at the edge of doom,
Comforted her like one about to leave.

She sensed departure and she stood aside
Smiling and bitter.  But he asked again,
“How did you eat? With what thing did you sin?”
And Eve with body slackened and uncouth,
“Under the tree I took the fruit of truth
From an angel.  I ate it with my other mouth.”
And saying so, she did not know she lied.

It was the man who suddenly released
From doubt, wept in the woman’s heavy arms,
Those double serpents, subtly winding forms
That climb and drop about the manly boughs,
And dry with weeping, fiery and aroused,
Fell on her face to slake his terrible thirst
And bore her body earthward like a beast.

VI. Shame

The hard blood falls back in the manly fount,
The soft door closes under Venus’ mount,
The ovoid moon moves to the Garden’s side
And dawn comes, but the lovers have not died.
They have not died but they have fallen apart.
In sleep, like equal halves of the same heart.

How to teach shame?  How to teach nakedness
To the already naked? How to express
Nudity? How to open innocent eyes
And separate the innocent from the wise?
And how to re-establish the guilty tree
In infinite gardens of humanity?

By marring the image, by the black device
Of the goat-god, by the clown of Paradise,
By fruits of cloth and by the navel’s bud,
By itching tendrils and by strings of blood,
By ugliness, by the shadow of our fear,
By ridicule, by the fig-leaf patch of hair.

Whiter than tombs, whiter than the whitest clay,
Exposed beneath the whitening eye of day,
They awake and saw that covering that reveals.
They thought they were changing into animals.
Like animals they bellowed terrible cries
And clutched each other, hiding each other’s eyes.

VII.  Exile

The one who gave them warning with his wings,
Still doubting them, held out the sword of flame
Against the Tree of Whiteness as they came
Angrily, slowly by, like exiled kings,

And watched them at the broken-open gate
Stare in the distance long and overlong,
And then, like peasants, pitiful and strong,
Take the first step toward earth and hesitate.

For Adam raised his head and called aloud,
“My Father, who has made the garden pall,
Giving me all things then taking all,
Who with your opposite nature has endowed

Woman, give us your hand for our descent.
Needing us greatly, even in our disgrace,
Guide us, for gladly do we leave this place
For our own land and wished for banishment.”

But woman prayed, “Guide us to Paradise.”
Around them slunk the uneasy animals,
Strangely excited, uttering coughs and growls,
And bounded down into the wild abyss.

And overhead, the last migrating birds,
Then empty sky.  And when the two had gone
A slow half-dozen steps across the stone,
The angel came and stood among the shards

And called them, as though joyously, by name.
They turned in dark amazement and beheld
Eden ablaze with fires of red and gold,
The garden dressed in dying in cold flame.

And it was autumn, and the present world.

Karl Shapiro (1913 – 2000)


Karl Shapiro’s poetry received early recognition, winning a number of major poetry awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, during the 1940s. Strongly influenced by the traditionalist poetry of W. H. Auden, Shapiro’s early work is “striking for its concrete but detached insights,” Alfred Kazin writes in Contemporaries. “It is witty and exact in the way it catches the poet’s subtle and guarded impressions, and it is a poetry full of clever and unexpected verbal conceits. It is a very professional poetry—supple and adaptable.” Stephen Stepanchev notes in American Poetry since 1945: A Critical Survey that Shapiro’s poems “found impetus and subject matter in the public crises of the 1940’s and all have their social meaning.”

Although his early traditionalist poetry was successful, Shapiro doubted the value and honesty of that kind of poetry. In many of his critical essays, he attacked the assumptions of traditionalist poetry as stifling to the poet’s creativity. “What he wants,” Paul Fussell, Jr. maintains in Partisan Review, “is a turning from received and thus discredited English and European techniques of focus in favor of honest encounters with the stuff of local experience.” In lectures and essays, Shapiro championed the works and poetic theories of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, two poets who broadened the possibilities of American poetry by defending new prosodies of open form.

In the poetry of both Whitman, which he memorized in his youth, and the Beat poets, Shapiro found a confirmation of his own idea of feeling over form. In his collection The Bourgeois Poet, Shapiro broke with his traditional poetic forms in favor of the free verse of Whitman and the Beats. Critics observed that the new poems also contained insights and an apocalyptic tone that was shocking compared to other poetry being published at that time. Writing in American Poets from the Puritans to the Present, Hyatt H. Waggoner finds The Bourgeois Poet “a work of greater poetic integrity than any of Shapiro’s earlier volumes.”

Person, Place and Thing, containing poems that had won the Levinson Prize when published in Poetry magazine, was applauded by the critics. Directly confronting subjects such as love, the history of the South in which Shapiro grew up an outsider, or the war in the South Pacific in which he served as a medical corps clerk, the poems were received as palpable “attacks.” His most frequent target in the poems, relates Ross Labrie in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, was the “dehumanized technocracies” that fostered urban decadence and sent men and women to war without regard for their worth as persons. In a Poetry review of a later book, Love & War, Art & God, David Wojahn comments that social criticism has always been part of Shapiro’s work. Wojahn writes, “From the very beginning, Shapiro identified himself as an iconoclast, and his outsider’s role extended beyond his attacks on social injustice. At a time before it was fashionable to do so, he proudly proclaimed his Jewishness and set himself against the main trends of Modernism.” Coming of age in the United States had much to do with his development as an iconoclast. In his introduction to The Poems of a Jew, he wrote, “As a third generation American I grew up with the obsessive idea of personal liberty which engrosses all Americans except the oldest and richest families.” In a Paris Review interview, Shapiro explained how being both a Jew and a poet also partly accounts for his point of view as an “outsider”: “I’ve always had this feeling—I’ve heard other Jews say—that when you can’t find any other explanation for the Jews, you say, ‘Well, they are poets.’. . . The poet is in exile whether he is or he is not. Because of what everybody knows about society’s idea of the artist as a peripheral character and a potential bum. Or a troublemaker. . . . I always thought of myself as being both in and out of society at the same time. Like the way most artists probably feel in order to survive—you have to at least pretend that you are ‘seriously’ in the world. Or actually perform in it while you know that in your own soul you are not in it at all.” Wojahn points out that Shapiro’s stance as a social critic does not make the poems cynical. “For all his stridency, Shapiro could be a wonderfully tender poet. . . . This side . . . materializes in empathic portraits like ‘The Leg’ and ‘The Figurehead,’ as well as in the poems that focus on Shapiro’s experience in the military during World War II.”

Shapiro published the Pulitzer prize-winning volume V-Letter and Other Poems in 1944 while serving with the U.S. Army in New Guinea. V-letters were letters written by American soldiers and microfilmed by censors before delivery to the United States. The poems recreate the tension between the intensity of wartime experiences and a sense of detachment from events that many soldiers felt while trying to conduct their personal lives over the obstacles of distance and the added obstacle of the censors. Though he appreciated what the award would do to establish his career as a writer, Shapiro felt more honored when he found out that copies of V-Letter and Other Poems had been placed in all U.S. Navy ship libraries.

In 1988 Shapiro published the first volume in a planned three-volume autobiography. This first volume, titled The Younger Son, details Shapiro’s childhood and early manhood, including his World War II experience and the beginnings of his literary career. While “the poet,” as Shapiro refers to himself throughout the volume, divulges little information about his relationship with his parents and the experiences of his youth, he is more expansive when discussing his wartime tour of duty, when he managed a prodigious poetic output while caring for wounded soldiers. He arrived home in 1945, having just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for V-Letter. Commenting on the author’s use of the third-person in the book and the resulting detachment from his life that is implied, Sewanee Review contributor David Miller notes that “The mood is an eerie one of diminishment and distance.” However, Miller concludes that “The Younger Son is beautifully styled, honest, and fascinating.”

Shapiro continued his autobiography with 1990’s Reports of My Death, the title referring to inaccurate media reports in the 1980s that Shapiro had committed suicide. The volume covers the period between 1945, when Shapiro returned home from World War II, and 1985, chronicling in the process Shapiro’s literary development; his stints as editor of Poetry and Prairie Schooner; his controversial decision to vote against Ezra Pound as recipient of the first Bollingen Prize for poetry; and his gradual fading from the literary limelight during the 1970s and 1980s. Again referring to himself in the third person, Shapiro openly discusses his numerous extramarital affairs, his disgust with the American literary scene, and his frustration at being dropped from the prestigious Oxford Book of American Verse. “Shapiro has written a beautiful book, not only tracing the long career of ‘the poet’ but doing so in dreamy, mellifluous sentences that sometimes left me feeling euphoric,” remarks Morris Dickstein in the Washington Post Book World. Several critics expressed disappointment with Shapiro’s decision not to date important events and not to identify people who figure prominently in his story. World Literature Today critic John Boening avers that “such indirectness may make the book rough going for future generations.” Nevertheless, Chicago Tribune Books reviewer Larry Kart declares that Shapiro’s two volumes of autobiography “not only rank with Shapiro’s finest poetic achievements but also will come to occupy . . . a high place in the canon of American autobiography.”

Examining Shapiro’s career as a whole in the Small Press Review, Leo Connellan remarks, “Poets owe Karl Shapiro, first for creating a sound and music in language that no other poet has surpassed.” Secondly, Shapiro has helped to support the work of new poets by including their works in textbook anthologies. New York Times contributor Laurence Leiberman sees Shapiro as one of “a generation of poets who . . . wrote a disproportionate number of superbly good poems in early career, became decorated overnight with honors . . . and spent the next twenty-odd years trying to outpace a growing critical notice of decline.”


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